Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy. First, kerosene from petroleum replaced whale oil. We didn’t run out of kerosene, either: electricity supplanted it because it was a superior way to light our planet.
For generations, we have consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation. There was a time when we worried that all of London would be covered with horse manure because of the increasing use of horse-drawn carriages. Thanks to the invention of the car, London has 7 million inhabitants today. Dung disaster averted.
In fact, would-be catastrophes have regularly been pushed aside throughout human history, and so often because of innovation and technological development. We never just continue to do the same old thing. We innovate and avoid the anticipated problems.
We know from experience that more prosperous countries are more able to respond to the challenges that climate change will pose. They are much more resilient to natural disasters while more able to invest in measures such as greener cities and flood protection. Yet instead of first making sure that everybody is better off and more resilient, our response to global warming has been to try to cut back carbon emissions too soon. In reality, this means reining in growth and making do with less than we could have otherwise.
But this approach flies in the face of history. The way we have made progress against disease, malnutrition, and environmental degradation in the past is by growing, by discovering, and by innovating. Naturally, it is a hard sell to tell the hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty in China and elsewhere that they ought to stop burning coal, roll back their prosperity, and go back to a life of poverty.